Ask yourself this question: Have you ever seen an abortion depicted onscreen? Unwanted pregnancies have formed the basis of many dramatic stories. In Dirty Dancing, dancer Penny gets knocked up and innocent Baby procures the money to pay for the termination; in Juno, the lead character can’t go through with an abortion and chooses instead to give her baby up for adoption; in The Delinquents, Lola gets pregnant and is forced to have a termination, against her will, by her mother. These are all incredibly dramatic, heart-wrenching tales where termination is seen as “the wrong choice.”
Now let me ask you another question: Have you ever watched a film where a woman gets pregnant, decides to have an abortion, visits the doctor, and has the procedure? Me neither. Until now. In Obvious Child, Donna Stern (played by Jenny Slate) is a 27-year-old comedian living in Brooklyn who gets dumped, fired, and pregnant all at once — just in time for the worst/best Valentine’s Day of her life. Donna is confident in her decision to have an abortion after a one-night-stand, but not so confident when it comes to her career or her talent. Written and directed by Jenny Robespierre, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and has gained great reviews, with Flavorwire calling it “wise, witty, and kind of revolutionary.”
Naturally, a revolutionary movie is going to attract controversy, and this is no exception. Despite abortion being legal in the US for over four decades, NBC refused to air a trailer for the film that featured the word “abortion,” causing the start of a petition and hashtag #StopTheStigma. In a country where three out of 10 women under 45 will have an abortion, how far have we really come if we can’t even say the word?
So many TV shows feature unwanted pregnancies that result in either: A) the mom-to-be deciding to keep the baby after all, or B) the pregnancy ending in miscarriage, so the difficult decision was taken out of the woman’s hands. Remember when Dawson’s mom got pregnant in Dawson’s Creek, and she decided to have the baby? Or when Andrea in 90210 got pregnant and also decided to keep the baby, only for her ex-boyfriend to decide to marry her after all, making them one big happy family? The message is loud and clear: “Nice,” “moral” women keep their babies, always choosing the “right” path.
Recently, a census by The University of California looked at abortion storylines in TV and film. The good news? They found over 300 plot lines in which a character considered an abortion between 1916 and 2013, including 87 on primetime network television — a refreshingly higher number than I anticipated. The bad news? These storylines completely differed from real-life statistics. Since 1973, when abortion was legalized in the US, the percentage of these characters considering an abortion who actually went on to have the procedure have fallen, while the number of terminations in the real world have actually increased.
Nine percent of the analyzed plot lines ended in adoption, despite it being a choice that only 1 percent of women make in real life. Amazingly, almost one in 10 fictional women died as a direct result of their abortion, when, in fact, the figure is practically zero in 100,000 in real life. Although this doesn’t take into account storylines featuring illegal abortions, it still does little to create the impression that abortion is a safe procedure to go through. This is compounded by the statistic that 13.5 percent of characters who considered abortion ended up dead — whether or not they even had one. The message they’re sending? Those who choose to terminate deserve punishment.
“More accurate representations of the reality of abortion are needed,” says Gretchen Sisson, one of the authors of the study. “Women are getting abortions. They have the right to know what they’re doing is safe.”
Which is where Obvious Child comes in. It’s time we had more “normal” representations of what is going on with women in today’s society, rather than some hokum about abortions causing death and the only “right” solution to pregnancy is going through with it, no matter the cost. I don’t want to raise a daughter, or indeed a son, in a world where women having a choice is considered a “bad” thing. Of course I hope that my children will (eventually) be educated enough to use contraception and make careful choices about sex and who they choose to have it with. And I hope that my daughter never has to go through a termination because it can be a traumatic decision. But I hope she also knows that a woman has a right to choose what to do with her own body and that she never feels forced into having a baby that, for time or circumstances or what have you, she doesn’t think is right. That is not to say that I regard choosing to have an abortion as an easy decision. I just don’t judge anyone who does decide to. Each woman has her own story, her own reasons, her own life.
So while woman wanting a termination because it’s the right thing for her circumstances perhaps isn’t a dramatic enough story in itself, it’s one that many American women are making on a daily basis. Our arts and culture should reflect this. More importantly, we should be able to discuss the subject of abortion without it being so taboo. If NBC can’t even air the word, then won’t it always be seen as something dirty? Will there always be shame and judgment attached to something that is a personal and private choice? Because thankfully in our culture, we do have the choice, and the more films that show this, the better.
Photo credit: IMDB.com